When this Cromwell, Connecticut, mom buys groceries, she stocks up big-time. Joanne, several of her siblings, and their mom team up to place an order twice a year with Associated Buyers, a large bulk-distribution company. A typical order includes a 50-pound bag of flour, a 35-pound box of raisins, and restaurant-size quantities of coffee, tea, salt, and more. "I can get walnuts for $2.39 a pound, compared with the $4.99 that I'd have to pay at the grocery store," says Swift, 41.
Their scheduled deliveries arrive by truck, and family members take turns waking up for the early-morning drop-offs. They unload the truck themselves to avoid an extra charge, and then they divvy up the bulk food into airtight plastic containers. "We've all got plenty of space in our homes for storage," says Swift, who has two refrigerators and a deep freezer.
Swift's husband, Bob, and their children--Anna, 14; Adam, 12; Benjamin, 10; Brianne, 8; Amelia, 4; and Allison, 22 months--aren't as thrilled as she is by the vast quantities of food they often have in their kitchen. "It drives my husband crazy when he opens up the cupboard and finds 30 pounds of rice there," she says. "He's always saying, 'We've got so much food around here--why can't I ever find anything to eat?'"
Make it work for you: Bulk-food companies usually require noncommercial customers to place minimum orders ($100 or more). Look on the Web for bulk-food suppliers in your area, or ask an independent local grocery store for names of nearby distributors.
The difference between Suzie Schmuckler and you is that she already knows what's for dinner. And not just tonight--three months from tonight. The best part? She knows she's not cooking it.
Schmuckler, 40, and three of her Herndon, Virginia, neighbors take turns making and delivering meals to each other's families from Monday through Thursday every week. They've got a written schedule with months of menus planned out, alternating between meat, poultry, pasta, and potluck.
Schmuckler finds that cooking for four families--her night is Wednesday--isn't much more difficult than cooking for one. In fact, making dinner less often has actually brought the plea-sure back into meal preparation. "I really enjoy cooking," says Schmuckler, mother of Hannah, 10; Jordan, 8; and Danny, 4. "And it's very rewarding to cook for so many people who appreciate my efforts."
Because the families plan their menus far in advance (and have them approved by all members of the group), they can wait for a sale before stocking up on necessary ingredients. "We can save money because we tend to buy food in larger quantities," Schmuckler says. "And we save still more money because we no longer rely on costly take-out and convenience foods as much." But the bigger savings, she says, "is in the mental energy you spend trying to think about what to make for dinner every night. It's nice to have other people help do that some of the time."
Make it work for you: It's best if you team up with families who live nearby so you can drop off dinner easily and quickly. Arrange to meet monthly to plan and write out detailed menus and to discuss which meals everyone likes best. Talk about whether you'll provide whole meals or just main courses, how much food should be included (especially if family sizes vary), and the range of delivery times.
This mom doesn't mind when her kids get bored with last week's toys. She knows she can just run out and get "new" ones. No, Rice isn't spoiling her children by buying them the hottest action figures or the newest board games. Instead, she belongs to a toy-lending library, one of dozens across the country that allow members to borrow from a large collection of playthings. Some memberships are free; others entail an annual fee (Rice pays $40 a year).
Borrowing toys has taught Rice's 6-year-old son, William, about responsibility. "He has learned to respect toys that belong to someone else," says Rice, 37, of Hudson, Ohio. "He knows that as long as he takes care of them, we can go back and try something new."
The toy library has proven especially helpful to Rice's son Thomas, 4, who was born with a brain abnormality and requires costly developmental toys, which the library keeps in abundance. And the library's vast selection makes playing more fun even for Rice. "I get bored with certain toys myself," she admits. "Since we joined the toy library, I've been more apt to play with my kids, because every few weeks we've got something new and exciting."
Make it work for you: Find a local toy library by calling the USA Toy Library Association, at 847-920-9030. Some public libraries also lend toys.
Deanna Andes and her husband, John, want their kids--Catherine, 8; John Jr., 5; and twins Patrick and Michael, 3 months--to experience different countries and cultures. Though annual overseas travel isn't typically in a one-income family's budget, the Andeses have made it a reality.
Every year, the Riverhead, New York, family swaps homes with vacationers from other countries through a service called Trading Homes International. By doing so, they save at least $2,000 they might have otherwise spent on accommodations for a two-week trip. They also trade cars, which cuts out another $500. They even save money on meals, because they can cook "at home"--something they couldn't do in a hotel. So far, the Andes family has visited England, France, Wales, and Mexico.
Andes, 38, doesn't worry about leaving her home in the hands of strangers. "I don't have Picassos and Faberg? eggs in my house," she quips. "And who would want to steal Sippy cups?" In fact, the strangers have become friends, staying in touch long after the exchanges. More important, "we've realized that people all over the world are just like us," Andes says.
Make it work for you: For $65, you can list your home for one year on Trading Homes International's Website, at www.trading-homes.com. To initiate a swap, you need to e-mail several prospective partners with a description of your home and nearby attractions. The agency will help you write up an agreement with rules and responsibilities.
Most families shell out a big chunk of change to send a child to nursery school. Larissa Fain, of Washington, D.C., only had to put in some creative energy and a few hours of her time.
She sent her daughter Maggie, now 5, to the Capitol Hill Cooperative Playschool, in Washington, D.C. The parent-run program gives about 20 toddlers a chance to get together two mornings a week to play games, sing songs, make art projects, and socialize with one another.
Parents take their turn--two at a time--as playschool "teachers." They prepare a schedule of activities for the two-hour class and bring in a healthy snack for the kids to share. "I went in every six weeks or so and had a great time with the kids," says Fain, 37, who works out of her home.
The school is housed in the basement of a neighborhood church, and parents pay a one-time $25 application fee and chip in about $10 a month to cover rent and supplies. Fain feels that's a small price to pay for the benefits that the playschool offers. "It's where my daughter made her first friends in our neighborhood, and I've met a lot of other moms," she says. "For us, it's been a great way to get involved in our community."
Make it work for you: Check with parent groups and local schools to find out if a co-op nursery school exists in your area. If not, consider starting a small one with friends. A group of six moms can provide an informal "playschool" experience by taking turns entertaining the kids at home.
Linda Walrod buys herself 10 to 15 hours of sanity a month--with Popsicle sticks. The little slivers of wood are the currency for her Grand Rapids, Michigan, baby-sitting co-op: Each stick buys an hour of care for one of her children. "I don't have any family members in the area to watch my kids, so I'd have to hire someone every time I needed to run out even for an hour or two," says Walrod, mother of Parker, 7; Madison, 5; Elena, 3; and Brooklyn, 19 months. "This arrangement saves me as much as $75 a month on baby-sitters."
Walrod started the co-op three years ago with eight women she met through a local mother's group. Frustrated by the difficulty they were all having finding reliable baby-sitters, the mothers decided they should take turns caring for each other's children. To formalize the arrangement, they set up a currency system: Members initially got 20 Popsicle sticks per child to "spend" on care. They pay one Popsicle stick per child for each hour of baby-sitting and earn the sticks back by watching other members' children. "For me, keeping an eye on a couple of extra kids is no big deal," says Walrod, 29. "We've got a fenced-in yard and a basement full of toys. And my children always enjoy playing with other kids."
Co-op members like the fact that they can usually find a sitter--even at the last moment--and that it's always an experienced mom their children know. What's more, "we've really grown close because we've become so involved in one another's families," Walrod says. "In addition to having a reliable pool of baby-sitters, I've also made some really great friends."
Make it work for you: If you live in a neighborhood with lots of young families, there may be an existing co-op you can join. Check for notices in pediatricians' offices, nursery schools, and community centers. To start a new co-op, hook up with other parents who live nearby and whose kids are roughly the same age as yours. For help establishing rules and policies, search the Web for sites on how to set up a baby-sitting co-op.
Copyright © 2002 Reshma Yaqub. Reprinted with permission from the July 2002 issue of Parents magazine.